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The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride

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In April of 1846, Sarah Graves was twenty-one and in love with a young man who played the violin. But she was torn. Her mother, father, and eight siblings were about to disappear over the western horizon forever, bound for California. Sarah could not bear to see them go out of her life, and so days before the planned departure she married the young man with the violin, and the two of them threw their lot in with the rest of Sarah's family. On April 12, they rolled out of the ...

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New York, NY 2009 Hard cover First edition. STATED 1ST EDITION, 1ST PRINTING New in new dust jacket. BRIGHT SHINY BRAND NEW Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. With dust jacket. ... 337 p. Contains: Illustrations, black & white. Audience: General/trade. Read more Show Less

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The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride

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Overview

In April of 1846, Sarah Graves was twenty-one and in love with a young man who played the violin. But she was torn. Her mother, father, and eight siblings were about to disappear over the western horizon forever, bound for California. Sarah could not bear to see them go out of her life, and so days before the planned departure she married the young man with the violin, and the two of them threw their lot in with the rest of Sarah's family. On April 12, they rolled out of the yard of their homestead in three ox-drawn wagons.

Seven months later, after joining a party of emigrants led by George Donner, Sarah and her family arrived at Truckee Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains just as the first heavy snows of the season closed the pass ahead of them. After a series of desperate attempts to cross the mountains, the party improvised cabins and slaughtered what remained of their emaciated livestock. By early December they were beginning to starve.

Sarah's father, a Vermonter, was the only member of the party familiar with snowshoes. Under his instruction, fifteen sets of snowshoes were hastily constructed from oxbows and rawhide, and on December 15, Sarah and fourteen other relatively young, healthy people set out for California on foot, hoping to get relief for the others. Over the next thirty-two days they endured almost unfathomable hardships and horrors.

In this gripping narrative, Daniel James Brown takes the reader along on every painful footstep of Sarah's journey. Along the way, he weaves into the story revealing insights garnered from a variety of modern scientific perspectives–psychology, physiology, forensics, and archaeology–producing a tale that is not only spell-binding but richly informative.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
"At sunset, we crossed Truckee Lake on the ice, and came to the spot where, we had been told, we should find the emigrants. We looked all around, but no living thing except ourselves was in sight. We raised a loud hello. And then we saw a woman emerge from a hole in the snow. As we approached her, several others made their appearance, in like manner coming out of the snow. They were gaunt with famine; and I never can forget the horrible, ghastly sight they presented. The first woman spoke in a hollow voice, very much agitated, and said, 'Are you men from California or do you come from heaven?' " The story of the ill-fated 1846–47 Donner Party, in which 39 people died and many of the survivors resorted to cannibalism, has been told many times before. In this penetrating book, Daniel James Brown explores the wagon train tragedy through the life of one young bride who survived this terrifying ordeal.
BookPage
“Daniel James Brown brings the myth to life, transforming faint history class memories into gripping reality.”
Boston Globe
“Brown draws from the many previously published accounts of the tragedy, letters from the party and those who knew them, accounts of life on the Oregon and California trails, genealogical databases, and his own travel along the trail…but he tells the tale with a novelist’s touch.”
Mary Roach
The Indifferent Stars Above is an ideal pairing of talent and material. In Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894, Brown showed himself to be a deft and ambitious storyteller, sifting through the copious and often conflicting details of dozens of survivor and eyewitness accounts to forge a trim, surging minute-by-minute narrative. He takes more side trips here with snow than he did with fire. In almost every chapter, he steps away from the events at hand to provide historical or medical context. With a few exceptions, it's engrossing stuff…Brown isn't a showy writer, and that's probably for the best. With tragedy of this scale, an unadorned telling of the events speaks loudest.
—The New York Times
Library Journal

In April 1846, as young newlywed Sarah Graves departed her Illinois home on a journey to California, she could not foresee the misery and horror that awaited her. After numerous delays on their difficult westward path, she and her family found themselves dangerously behind schedule as winter loomed, and they decided to join an ill-fated wagon train under the leadership of George Donner. Ending up snowbound and starving in the Sierra Nevada range, the Donner party descended into cannibalism, a well-known and grisly episode of pioneer history. Given a fresh and intriguing telling here thanks to the supple, readable, and well-researched narrative by Brown (former managing editor, Microsoft Corp.; Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894), Graves's dark tale is engrossing and appalling in equal measure. Never melodramatic or maudlin, Brown's work gracefully balances graphic depictions of extreme privation with humanizing glimpses of the emigrants' everyday hopes and fears. Brown also skillfully weaves relevant historical, cultural, and scientific information into his chronicle, creating a rich and contextualized background. Likely to appeal to true adventure and history fans, who may also like Frank Mullen's The Donner Party Chronicles, this work is strongly recommended for larger public libraries.
—Ingrid Levin

Kirkus Reviews
Brown (Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894, 2006) delivers a skillful, suspenseful study of the Donner Party, narrated from the point of view of a newly married woman. In April 1846, 21-year-old Sarah Graves embarked with her family and new husband, 23-year-old Jay Fosdick, on a wagon-train migration to California from Steuben Township, Ill. Armed with Lansford Warren Hastings's newly published The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California, they set out with other families, unaware of how disastrously perilous Hastings's "shortcut" to California-via Wyoming to the south end of the Great Salt Lake and then through the impassable Wasatch Mountains-would prove. Burdened by their heavy loads, the parties moved slowly and faced increasingly dire conditions such as parched land, limited water, deteriorating sanitary conditions, Indian raids on their cattle and indecision regarding which way to go. Snow began falling in late October when they reached the cliffs of the Sierra Nevada. Halted at Truckee Lake, those able to walk-including Graves-were determined to make a pass over the mountains and find help, while the mothers and small children stayed at the lake camp. Starvation, hypothermia and dementia plagued both groups, and at some point the wanderers decided to eat the bodies of the dead, including Graves's father and husband. Some even conspired to kill those still alive, such as the two native Miwok boys who accompanied them. Of the 87 "official members of George Donner's company," 47 died, mostly men. Wading through the many previous accounts of the ill-fated journey, Brown creates a thorough and unique narrative. A moving man-against-nature tragedy that stillresonates today.
BookPage
“Daniel James Brown brings the myth to life, transforming faint history class memories into gripping reality.”
Boston Globe
“Brown draws from the many previously published accounts of the tragedy, letters from the party and those who knew them, accounts of life on the Oregon and California trails, genealogical databases, and his own travel along the trail…but he tells the tale with a novelist’s touch.”
Irvin Molotsky
“A compelling retelling of the ghastly events surrounding the Donner party. Daniel James Brown, using one survivor’s experience as his focus, moves beyond the cardboard figures depicted in previous accounts and shows how the lucky few endured and survived.”
Nina Burleigh
“In this gripping narrative, Brown reveals the extremes of endurance that underlie the history of this nation, and more than that, of humanity in any part of the world, even today, surviving great peril in search of a better life.”
From the Publisher
"Brown draws from the many previously published accounts of the tragedy. . . . But he tells the tale with a novelist's touch." —-Boston Globe
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061348105
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/28/2009
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel James Brown is the author of The Boys in the Boat and Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894. He lives in the country east of Redmond, Washington, with his wife and two daughters.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 59 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(31)

4 Star

(15)

3 Star

(10)

2 Star

(2)

1 Star

(1)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 59 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2010

    More than Meets the Eye

    It has been years since I have found a book that I literally could not pull myself away from. This is it!
    Daniel James Brown is a gifted author who obviously spent a great deal of time researching not only the Donner Party, but countless other aspects of American life in the mid-1800's, even going so far as to physically re-trace the steps of these courageous pioneers when current weather conditions concurred with those they had endured on their 2000-mile trek to a new life in little-known California.
    Brown uses, and completely notates, numerous resources to substantiate his historical documentations and uses modern-day forensics and science to bring this tragic story to life.
    The contents of this book will stay with you as you meet its characters, who Brown transforms from vague names in an American History textbook to real-life families, neighbors, people you might have known in 1846.

    10 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 12, 2010

    This book gave soul to a sad story

    I picked this book up expecting little by way of originality given the topic, but upon a friend's recommendation, gave it a chance. This book was a bit slow at first, but pulled me in with every turn of a page, and in the end, I cried for what happened to the lives it brought to life, for despite the span of decades, the emotions shared are, in the end, shared by all of us and easy to feel when written as well as this book has been...well worth reading, even for the high school crowd,...this will forever maintain a place of honour in my library.

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 17, 2009

    Little Did We Know

    As did others, I learned about the Donner Party in History classes. Yet, how many of us truly knew the soul-searching and gut wrenching decision these people faced, all in an effort for survival? I venture to say not many of us. Perhaps, it's because merely the mention of "cannibalism" is enough to shut down further thinking. Brown takes an interesting tact to further illuminate the struggles for mere survival the members of the Donner Party faced - Brown has the reader "walk" in the shoes of one of the members, a young gal married days before heading West with her parents and siblings. This, alone, puts a human face to this tragedy. To gain a new perspective and respect for these pioneers, I highly recommend this book, one that does not read like a History lesson. Then, put yourself in the shoes of any of one of the Party's members: What decision would you make merely to survive?

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 11, 2009

    The Indifferent Stars Above

    Much misinformation is unfortunately available about what has come to be known as "The Donner Party." Daniel Brown has done considerable research on what happened to it in 1946-7. If you have time to read only one book on the subject, read this one.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2012

    The Best Written Book on The Donner Party 1846/1847

    There are so many books available on the Donner Party disaster of 1846/1847. If you read only one, this should be it!
    The Donner Party epic could be a very gruesome and depressing read but the author, Daniel James Brown tempers the gore that one should expect when reading about the Donner Party and fills that void with fact, medical knowledge, and psychological analysis.
    The reader will feel the cold, feel the pain, and experience the anguish of one Sarah Graves as she struggles to survive.
    Unlike other books, this book continues with the survivors life story even after the rescue.
    Five Stars is not enough of a rating for this incredible story.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 10, 2012

    Harrowing

    Indifferent Stars is a riveting account of the limits to which human endurance can be pushed. To anyone who has ever heard tales of tehe Donner party or who thinks they have reached the breaking point it is a must read.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2010

    Very interesting and well researched story

    This is definitely the most indepth and well researched story about the Donner party. He takes you, via the story and his travels to the places that the party traveled and gives you an insight into the lives of the travelers before their journey started and how they lived out the remainder of their lives.
    Good story and definitely worth reading.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 7, 2010

    Absorbing account of the Donner Party Crossing

    I remembered little from school history lessons about the Donner Party other than "caught in the mountains" and "cannibilism". This was a very good history of what came to be known as the Donner Party crossing; a very harrowing account, and gives much food for thought. This was a "perfect storm" of events that transpired to create a human tragedy that really could have happened to anyone in that situation. I highly recommend this book.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2012

    Excellent!

    Not a lover of non-fiction, but this is impossible to put down.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2014

    Really like 'this Dan Brown'

    Would never have read a story about the Donner Party, but I like the author. Was not disapppointed. Really enjoy this "other Dan Brown"; he has a nice way with words, does his research, and puts thing in perspective. Loved "The Boys in the Boat"; glad I bought this one too.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 13, 2012

    Nockheat

    Bye!

    1 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 3, 2014

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 29, 2014

    Excellent book!

    Most of us who have traveled to the West are familiar with Donner Pass. This book is an eye opener and a must read for anyone to understand the history of the development of the West.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2014

    I give it 3

    The story itself is fantastic, the writing not so much. At times the book was confusing. And i found myself rereading pages to see what family member was where. And then there was a chunk of the book missing at the end and it repeats a few chapters.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 22, 2013

    Aa

    I really was expecting the story to be retold through the eyes of Sarah. On a few pages it was. I was disappointed to find more a reading of a very detailed history book. If you enjoy that sort of thing read this. If you are looking for a more personalized telling you find it only on scattered pagges and in the epilogue.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 10, 2013

    Great book

    Thid book provides a great insight into the characters that shaped our country

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 9, 2013

    Very interesting

    I very much enjoyed this book. There were so many characters that I often forgot who was who but there were a lot of people in the Donner party so that couldn't be helped. Tragic but interesting story.

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  • Posted September 30, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Great insight into a very real and sad story. 

    Great insight into a very real and sad story. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 18, 2013

    Excellent

    Well written and researched.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2012

    STARCLAN stars

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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